Thursday, March 19, 2015

Josephine Groves Holloway - A True Girl Scout

I was only a Girl Scout for one year during 6th grade. But what a year it was! Me and my friends and my friend's mom did all kinds of great stuff. We went to a camp gathering of local Girl Scout troops, learned how to groom and take care of horses, and made all kinds of cool things.

I loved being a Girl Scout and was disappointed when the troop was disbanded the next year when my friend's mom couldn't do it anymore, and no one else's parent could take it over. I still go out of my way to support local girl scouts by buying cookies (duh!) and also taking part in other events during the year. (The local troop has a post-Christmas tree pick-up service that's pretty handy!)

While I know that being a Girl Scout might not appeal to everyone, I like what the national council is attempting to do. Judging by the troops in my area, there are girls from all walks of life, and they've been in the news lately with their support of LGBTQ members and leaders. I have heard stories about troops in other areas that might be less welcoming, and I sincerely hope that they are the exception rather than the rule.

I remember reciting the Girl Scout Promise, and feeling very proud of myself. It was something that resonated deeply with 11 year old me. Of course, looking back on it now, with 30-something years of feminist thinking, I see the promise somewhat differently, and would probably prefer it be worded a bit differently.

But on the whole, based on what I experienced and what I see as the goals put forth by the Girl Scouts of America, I can understand the appeal and the benefits of belonging to such a historied institution, which has given us some amazing leaders  and role models over the years, like Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Michelle Obama, Sandra Day O'Connor, Sally Ride, Gloria Steinem, and Jessye Norman, to name a few.

But despite its reputation now, it was not always such a welcoming place. It has only been through the hard work of dedicated women and girls that the honor of being a Girl Scout has been opened to so many.

One such devoted Girl Scout leader was Josephine Groves Holloway. In 1923, Josephine, the daughter of a Methodist minister and a recent graduate from Fisk University with a degree in sociology, was working as a social worker for the Bethlehem Center in Nashville, Tennessee, a Methodist-run family resource center serving the black community.

Her job as "girls' worker" was to work with the girls and young women who came to the center, and it was during her first year in this position that she learned about the Girl Scouts, which was still a relatively new organization in the United States, having only been introduced by Juliette Gordon Low in 1912. Impressed by the goals of the Girl Scouts, she wondered why there was not a Girl Scout troop for black girls. While there was a troop for white girls, founded in 1917, these six years later, the white troop had trouble recruiting and retaining scouts, and the proposed troop for black girls had never been formed.

Undaunted, Josephine was intent on bringing Girl Scouting to her community. In January 1924, she attended the Southern Education Conference on Scouting, and completed the full training session with Juliette Gordon Low herself. That she was the only black woman allowed to attend the event should be some kind of clue as to the importance of her work, and the social road blocks she faced. Nevertheless, by the end of the course, she was a commissioned Girl Scout captain, and she set out to attract as many girls to the program as she could.

And attract girls she did! In the first year, the first registered black troop of Girl Scouts in Nashville had over 150 girls! She had incorporated scouting into her work with the Bethlehem Center, and it was a big hit!

Sadly for her scouts, she was forced to retire from her work with the Bethlehem Center the next year, when she married Guerney Holloway, the "boys' worker" and her former classmate. After she left, the troop was neglected and eventually folded.

But Josephine did not stop working to bring the benefits of scouting to the black girls of Nashville. She established another troop on her own, and encouraged other black women to do the same. She had tried to have her troop registered, but the Nashville Girl Scout council continually denied her requests. So she kept running her unofficial troop, following contraband manuals her husband sent home while he was studying in Chicago when the local council refused to give her a set. Her scouts wore their own version of the uniform, and learned all the same things as other Girl Scouts, but still longed to be "real" Girl Scouts.

The ugly displays of racism were not limited to the actions of adults toward Josephine. Nashville, steeped in the violent atmosphere that enforced Jim Crow laws across the South, did not single out one woman for its hate. When, in 1938, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Girl Scouts' honorary president, was invited to speak in Nashville, it was declared that she would address a whites-only audience first, with a second, smaller speech for a "colored" audience. It's no surprise that she refused to cater to this blatant display of racism, and instead insisted on giving only one speech to a mixed audience. The all-white Girl Scout council acquiesced, but required all blacks to sit in the gallery section of the auditorium.

Josephine continued to work with her scouts, and organized 25 more troops. Again, in 1942, she attempted to register her troops. The paperwork languished in review, and it wasn't until May 1943 that the first troop was finally approved. On July 1 of that year, Josephine took a paid position as organizer and field adviser, becoming the first black professional Girl Scout worker in Nashville.

Josephine's efforts, always a benefit to her community, were starting to pay off on a larger scale. The local council began to truly appreciate her work, and make changes to how they conducted their business. By 1946, when the Nashville council hosted the regional gathering of Girl Scouts, the event was fully integrated, even though the larger, non-scouting community was not. Black scouts and their leaders were invited to join, but had to seek accommodations in the homes of local citizens. Fortunately, Josephine's outreach in her community had created significant goodwill, and they had no problem finding rooms for everyone. The hotels involved would not serve black guests, so all future events were held in the local YWCA or other halls that were open to everyone.

It was not all sunshine and roses, though. The more common Girl Scout events were still segregated, as were the troops themselves. That included camping locations around Nashville. Convinced that part of being a Girl Scout involved camping and outdoor recreation, Josephine and her husband worked to find land that they could use for a camp for the black troops. The found a spot, which they purchased and set up, and ran for many years. It was named Camp Holloway in her honor.

She retired on July 1, 1963, exactly 20 years after accepting her position with the Girl Scouts, and having influenced thousands of young black girls. At her memorial, many women who called themselves "Holloway's Girls" spoke about the effect scouting had on their lives and how they owed it all to the hard work and determination of Josephine Holloway. Yes, she truly was a "real" Girl Scout, through and through.

For more information:

Black Girl Scouts and the Powerful Black Women Who Make it and Other Empowering Things Happen

The Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital : Black History Month

Notable Black American Women, Book 2, edited by Jessie Carney Smith

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